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Why Robots Won’t Cause Mass Unemployment – Article by Jonathan Newman

Why Robots Won’t Cause Mass Unemployment – Article by Jonathan Newman

The New Renaissance Hat
Jonathan Newman
August 5, 2017

I made a small note in a previous article about how we shouldn’t worry about technology that displaces human workers:

The lamenters don’t seem to understand that increased productivity in one industry frees up resources and laborers for other industries, and, since increased productivity means increased real wages, demand for goods and services will increase as well. They seem to have a nonsensical apocalyptic view of a fully automated future with piles and piles of valuable goods everywhere, but nobody can enjoy them because nobody has a job. I invite the worriers to check out simple supply and demand analysis and Say’s Law.

Say’s Law of markets is a particularly potent antidote to worries about automation, displaced workers, and the so-called “economic singularity.” Jean-Baptiste Say explained how over-production is never a problem for a market economy. This is because all acts of production result in the producer having an increased ability to purchase other goods. In other words, supplying goods on the market allows you to demand goods on the market.

Say’s Law, Rightly Understood

J.B. Say’s Law is often inappropriately summarized as “supply creates its own demand,” a product of Keynes having “badly vulgarized and distorted the law.”

Professor Bylund has recently set the record straight regarding the various summaries and interpretations of Say’s Law.

Bylund lists the proper definitions:

Say’s Law:

  • Production precedes consumption.
  • Demand is constituted by supply.
  • One’s demand for products in the market is limited by one’s supply.
  • Production is undertaken to facilitate consumption.
  • Your supply to satisfy the wants of others makes up your demand for for others’ production.
  • There can be no general over-production (glut) in the market.

NOT Say’s Law:

  • Production creates its own demand.
  • Aggregate supply is (always) equal to aggregate demand.
  • The economy is always at full employment.
  • Production cannot exceed consumption for any good.

Say’s Law should allay the fears of robots taking everybody’s jobs. Producers will only employ more automated (read: capital-intensive) production techniques if such an arrangement is more productive and profitable than a more labor-intensive technique. As revealed by Say’s Law, this means that the more productive producers have an increased ability to purchase more goods on the market. There will never be “piles and piles of valuable goods” laying around with no one to enjoy them.

Will All the Income Slide to the Top?

The robophobic are also worried about income inequality — all the greedy capitalists will take advantage of the increased productivity of the automated techniques and fire all of their employees. Unemployment will rise as we run out of jobs for humans to do, they say.

This fear is unreasonable for three reasons. First of all, how could these greedy capitalists make all their money without a large mass of consumers to purchase their products? If the majority of people are without incomes because of automation, then the majority of people won’t be able to help line the pockets of the greedy capitalists.

Second, there will always be jobs because there will always be scarcity. Human wants are unlimited, diverse, and ever-changing, yet the resources we need to satisfy our desires are limited. The production of any good requires labor and entrepreneurship, so humans will never become unnecessary.

Finally, Say’s Law implies that the profitability of producing all other goods will increase after a technological advancement in the production of one good. Real wages can increase because the greedy robot-using capitalists now have increased demands for all other goods. I hope the following scenario makes this clear.

The Case of the Robot Fairy

This simple scenario shows why the increased productivity of a new, more capital-intensive technique makes everybody better off in the end.

Consider an island of three people: Joe, Mark, and Patrick. The three of them produce coconuts and berries. They prefer a varied diet, but they have their own comparative advantages and preferences over the two goods.

Patrick prefers a stable supply of coconuts and berries every week, and so he worked out a deal with Joe such that Joe would pay him a certain wage in coconuts and berries every week in exchange for Patrick helping Joe gather coconuts. If they have a productive week, Joe gets to keep the extra coconuts and perhaps trade some of the extra coconuts for berries with Mark. If they have a less than productive week, then Patrick still receives his certain wage and Joe has to suffer.

On average, Joe and Patrick produce 50 coconuts/week. In exchange for his labor, Patrick gets 10 coconuts and 5 quarts of berries every week from Joe.

Mark produces the berries on his own. He produces about 30 quarts of berries every week. Joe and Mark usually trade 20 coconuts for 15 quarts of berries. Joe needs some of those berries to pay Patrick, but some are for himself because he also likes to consume berries.

In sum, and for an average week, Joe and Patrick produce 50 coconuts and Mark produces 30 quarts of berries. Joe ends up with 20 coconuts and 10 quarts of berries, Patrick ends up with 10 coconuts and 5 quarts of berries, and Mark ends up with 20 coconuts and 15 quarts of berries.

Production Trade Consumption
Joe 50 Coconuts (C) Give 20C for 15B 20C + 10B
Patrick n/a 10C + 5B (wage)
Mark 30 qts. Berries (B) Give 15B for 20C 20C + 15B

The Robot Fairy Visits

One night, the robot fairy visits the island and endows Joe with a Patrick 9000, a robot that totally displaces Patrick from his job, plus some. With the robot, Joe can now produce 100 coconuts per week without the human Patrick.

What is Patrick to do? Well, he considers two options: (1) Now that the island has plenty of coconuts, he could go work for Mark and pick berries under a similar arrangement he had with Joe; or (2) Patrick could head to the beach and start catching some fish, hoping that Joe and Mark will trade with him.

While these options weren’t Patrick’s top choices before the robot fairy visited, now they are great options precisely because Joe’s productivity has increased. Joe’s increased productivity doesn’t just mean that he is richer in terms of coconuts, but his demands for berries and new goods like fish increase as well (Say’s Law), meaning the profitability of producing all other goods that Joe likes also increases!

Option 1

If Patrick chooses option 1 and goes to work for Mark, then both berry and coconut production totals will increase. Assuming berry production doesn’t increase as much as coconut production, the price of a coconut in terms of berries will decrease (Joe’s marginal utility for coconuts will also be very low), meaning Mark can purchase many more coconuts than before.

Suppose Patrick adds 15 quarts of berries per week to Mark’s production. Joe and Mark could agree to trade 40 coconuts for 20 quarts of berries, so Joe ends up with 60 coconuts and 20 quarts of berries. Mark can pay Patrick up to 19 coconuts and 9 quarts of berries and still be better off compared to before Joe got his Patrick 9000 (though Patrick’s marginal productivity would warrant something like 12 coconuts and 9 quarts of berries or 18 coconuts and 6 quarts of berries or some combination between those — no matter what, everybody is better off).

Production Trade Consumption
Joe 100C Give 40C for 20B 60C + 20B
Patrick 45B n/a 16C + 7B (wage)
Mark Give 20B for 40C 24C + 18B

Option 2

If Mark decides to reject Patrick’s offer to work for him, then Patrick can choose option 2, catching fish. It involves more uncertainty than what Patrick is used to, but he anticipates that the extra food will be worth it.

Suppose that Patrick can produce just 5 fish per week. Joe, who is practically swimming in coconuts pays Patrick 20 coconuts for 1 fish. Mark, who is excited about more diversity in his diet and even prefers fish to his own berries, pays Patrick 10 quarts of berries for 2 fish. Joe and Mark also trade some coconuts and berries.

In the end, Patrick gets 20 coconuts, 10 quarts of berries, and 2 fish per week. Joe gets 50 coconuts, 15 quarts of berries, and 1 fish per week. Mark gets 30 coconuts, 5 quarts of berries, and 2 fish per week. Everybody prefers their new diet.

Production Trade Consumption
Joe 100C Give 50C for 15B + 1F 50C + 15B + 1F
Patrick 5 fish (F) Give 2F for 20C + 10B 20C + 10B + 2F
Mark 30B Give 25B for 30C + 1F 30C + 5B + 2F


The new technology forced Patrick to find a new way to sustain himself. These new jobs were necessarily second-best (at most) to working for Joe in the pre-robot days, or else Patrick would have pursued them earlier. But just because they were suboptimal pre-robot does not mean that they are suboptimal post-robot. The island’s economy was dramatically changed by the robot, such that total production (and therefore consumption) could increase for everybody. Joe’s increased productivity translated into better deals for everybody.

Of course, one extremely unrealistic aspect of this robot fairy story is the robot fairy. Robot fairies do not exist, unfortunately. New technologies must be wrangled into existence by human labor and natural resources, with the help of capital goods, which also must be produced using labor and natural resources. Also, new machines have to be maintained, replaced, refueled, and rejiggered, all of which require human labor. Thus, we have made this scenario difficult for ourselves by assuming away all of the labor that would be required to produce and maintain the Patrick 9000. Even so, we see that the whole economy, including the human Patrick, benefits as a result of the new robot.

This scenario highlights three important points:

(1) Production must precede consumption, even for goods you don’t produce (Say’s Law). For Mark to consume coconuts or fish, he has to supply berries on the market. For Joe to consume berries or fish, he has to supply coconuts on the market. Patrick produced fish so that he could also enjoy coconuts and berries.

(2) Isolation wasn’t an option for Patrick. Because of the Law of Association (a topic not discussed here, but important nonetheless), there is always a way for Patrick to participate in a division of labor and benefit as a result, even after being displaced by the robot.

(3) Jobs will never run out because human wants will never run out. Even if our three island inhabitants had all of the coconuts and berries they could eat before the robot fairy visited, Patrick was able to supply additional want satisfaction with a brand new good, the fish. In the real world, new technologies often pave the way for brand new, totally unrelated goods to emerge and for whole economies to flourish. Hans Rosling famously made the case that the advent of the washing machine allowed women and their families to emerge from poverty:

And what’s the magic with them? My mother explained the magic with this machine the very, very first day. She said, “Now Hans, we have loaded the laundry. The machine will make the work. And now we can go to the library.” Because this is the magic: you load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books out of the machines, children’s books. And mother got time to read for me. She loved this. I got the “ABC’s” — this is where I started my career as a professor, when my mother had time to read for me. And she also got books for herself. She managed to study English and learn that as a foreign language. And she read so many novels, so many different novels here. And we really, we really loved this machine.

And what we said, my mother and me, “Thank you industrialization. Thank you steel mill. Thank you power station. And thank you chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books.”

Similarly, the Patrick 9000, a coconut-producing robot, made fish production profitable. Indeed, when we look at the industrial revolution and the computer revolution, we do not just see an increase in the production of existing goods. We see existing goods increasing in quantity and quality; we see brand new consumption goods and totally new industries emerging, providing huge opportunities for employment and future advances in everybody’s standard of living.

Jonathan Newman is Assistant Professor of Economics and Finance at Bryan College. He earned his PhD at Auburn University and is a Mises Institute Fellow. He can be contacted here.

Fooled by GDP: Economic Activity versus Economic Growth – Article by Steven Horwitz

Fooled by GDP: Economic Activity versus Economic Growth – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance Hat
Steven Horwitz
May 4, 2015

Even the smartest of economists can make the simplest of mistakes. Two recent books, Violence and Social Orders by Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast and Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson both suffer from misunderstanding the concept of economic growth. Both books speak of the high growth rates in the Soviet economy in the mid-20th century. Even if the authors rightly note that such rates could not be sustained, they are still assuming that the aggregate measures they rely on as evidence of growth, such as GDP, really did reflect improvements in the lives of Soviet citizens. It is not clear that such aggregates are good indicators of genuine economic growth.

These misunderstandings of economic growth take two forms. One form is to assume that the traditional measurements we use to track economic activity also describe economic growth, and the other form is to mistake the production of material things for economic growth.

Often at the core of this confusion is the concept of gross domestic product (GDP). Although it is the most frequently used indicator of economic growth, what it really measures is economic activity. GDP is calculated by attempting to measure the market value of final goods and services produced in a particular geographic area over a specific period. By “final” goods and services, we mean the goods and services purchased by the end consumer, and that means excluding the various exchanges of inputs that went into making them. We count the loaf of bread you buy for sandwiches, but not the purchase of flour by the firm that produced the bread.

What GDP does not distinguish, however, is whether the exchanges that are taking place — even the total quantity of final goods — actually improve human lives.

That improvement is what we should be counting as economic growth. Two quick examples can illustrate this point.

First, nations that devote a great deal of resources to building enormous monuments to their leaders will see their GDP rise as a result. The purchase of the final goods and labor services to make such monuments will add to GDP, but whether they improve human lives and should genuinely constitute “economic growth” is much less obvious. GDP tells us nothing about whether the uses of the final goods and services that it measures are better than their alternative uses.

Second, consider how often people point to the supposed silver lining of natural disasters: all the jobs that will be created in the recovery process. I am writing this column at the airport in New Orleans, where, after Katrina, unemployment was very low and GDP measures were high. All of that cleanup activity counted as part of GDP, but I don’t think we want to say that rebuilding a devastated city is “economic growth” — or even that it’s any kind of silver lining. At best, such activity just returns us to where we were before the disaster, having used up in the process resources that could have been devoted to improving lives.

GDP measures economic activity, which may or may not constitute economic growth. In this way, it is like body weight. We can imagine two men who both weigh 250 pounds. One could be a muscular, fit professional athlete with very low body fat, and the other might be on the all-Cheetos diet. Knowing what someone weighs doesn’t tell us if it’s fat or muscle. GDP tells us that people are producing things but says nothing about whether those things are genuinely improving people’s lives.

The Soviet Union could indeed produce “stuff,” but when you look at the actual lives of the typical citizen, the stuff being produced did not translate into meaningful improvements in those lives.

Improving lives is what we really care about when we talk about economic growth.

The second confusion is a particular version of the first one. Too often, we think that economic growth is all about the production of material goods. We see this in discussions of the US economy, where the (supposed) decline of manufacturing is pointed to as a symptom of a poorly growing economy. But if economic growth is really about the accumulation of wealth — which is, in turn, about people acquiring things they value more — then material goods alone aren’t the issue. More physical stuff doesn’t mean that the stuff is improving lives.

More important, though, is that what really matters is subjective value. The purchase of a service is no less able to improve our lives, and thereby be a source of economic growth, than are the production and purchase of material goods. In fact, what we really care about when we purchase a material good is not the thing itself, but the stream of services it can provide us. The laptop I’m working on is valuable because it provides me with a whole bunch of services (word processing, games, Internet access, etc.) that I value highly. It is the subjective satisfaction of wants that we really care about, and whether that comes from a physical good or from human labor does not matter.

This point is particularly obvious in the digital and sharing economies, where so much value is created not through the production of stuff, but by using the things we have more efficiently and precisely. Uber doesn’t require the production of more cars, and Airbnb doesn’t require the production of more dwellings. But by using existing resources better, we create value — and that is what we mean by economic growth.

So what should we look at instead of GDP as we try to ascertain whether we are experiencing economic growth? Look at living standards: of average people, and especially of poor people. How easily can they obtain the basics of life? How many hours do they have to work to do so? Look at the division of labor. How fine is it? Are people able to specialize in narrow areas and still find demand for their products and services?

Economic growth is not the same as economic activity. It’s not about just making more exchanges or producing more stuff. It’s ultimately about getting people the things they want at progressively lower cost, and thereby improving their well-being. That’s what markets have done for the last two centuries. For those of us who understand this point, it’s important not to assume that higher rates of GDP growth or the increased production of physical stuff automatically means we are seeing growth.

Real economic growth is about improving people’s subjective well-being, and that is sometimes harder to see even as the evidence for it is all around us.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

My Tiny Cosmopolitan Apartment – Article by Joseph S. Diedrich

My Tiny Cosmopolitan Apartment – Article by Joseph S. Diedrich

The New Renaissance Hat
Joseph S. Diedrich
October 25, 2014

Global trade made my little flat a place of international treasures.


I live in a studio apartment, so my kitchen is my living room is my bedroom. The other day, I was staring out my sole window when something startled me. (And it wasn’t the subwoofer two floors up.)

It was my coffee. While sipping from my mug, I glanced at the bag of beans. It read, “Origin: Ethiopia.” Next, I read the text on the bottom of my laptop: “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” I looked down at my necktie: “Bruno Piatelli. Roma.”

This little exercise became a game. From what other far-off places did my stuff come? I sleep on bed sheets from Egypt. I drink bottles of Shiraz from Australia. I pour Canadian maple syrup on my pancakes. Some things weren’t technically “foreign,” but they still came a long way: books printed in New York, apples grown in Washington orchards, and beer brewed in St. Louis.

Within the narrow confines of my apartment was an expansive world market — a veritable microcosm of the global economy.

What startled me most wasn’t that so much had traveled so far. Rather, it was that I found nothing from my own city. While I had purchased some items in Madison, they didn’t originate here.

What about the “buy local” bandwagon? If I were to follow the consumer movement du jour to its fullest extent, I’d be much poorer. Because of a much more constrained division of labor, I’d spend more money on lower quality goods. I probably wouldn’t even have coffee, and I certainly wouldn’t own an Italian necktie.

Yet I don’t intentionally avoid local goods. Every Saturday morning, like a ritual, I visit the county farmers market. I buy delicious seasonal fruits, vegetables, and cheeses from nearby farmers — not because they’re local, but because they’re the best. Produce tends to be tastier if it hasn’t spent a week on a flatbed.

Adam Smith once wrote, “In every country it always is and must be the interest of the great body of the people to buy whatever they want of those who sell it cheapest.” The less trade is restricted between individuals and across borders, the more “the body of people” can “buy whatever they want” the “cheapest.” As society becomes more and more integrated, we can better take advantage of the division of labor, leading to lower prices, greater prosperity, and a higher standard of living for everyone.

When I buy a preferable foreign product instead of its domestic counterpart, I obviously benefit myself. I receive a better product at a better price. I also clearly help the foreign producer.

I benefit the domestic economy, too. By purchasing cheaper foreign goods, I reserve more of my money to spend elsewhere, including in domestic exchange. More importantly, I send a signal to domestic producers: don’t waste your time making that thing! By doing so, I incentivize domestic producers to reallocate their resources to more highly valued endeavors.

It’s true that free trade and globalization make the rich richer. But they also make the poor richer. Trade provides cell phones to people in developing countries. It increases wages. It fosters international peace. And it makes denizens of tiny dwellings feel like the freest, richest people in the world.

Four hundred fifty square feet doesn’t sound like much. Yet somehow I’ve managed to fit states, countries, and even continents inside. The most remarkable thing of all? I didn’t intend for this to happen. I didn’t decide one day to start purchasing only “foreign” goods. I never consciously attempted to avail myself of “exotic” treasures.

Nobody ever intends for this to happen. Every day, we make countless, often subconscious cost-benefit analyses. When it comes to purchasing actual goods, we weigh all the factors we care about — price, quality, size, shape, taste, and so on. We search for the highest quality consumer goods within our respective price ranges. Just by buying what we like, we unwittingly amass personal bazaars.

We are capable of planning only for our individual selves. Despite the ubiquity of cosmopolitan collections of consumer goods, nobody could ever plan for such a thing. We simply lack the capacity to organize an entire economy to fit our specific needs.

This was the keen insight of economist F.A. Hayek, who recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of his Nobel Prize. While he admitted that “all economic activity” involves planning, not all planning is the same. Because there’s “no dispute about whether planning is to be done or not,” what matters is “whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.”

My apartment has only one window, but I feel like I can see the whole world. Every treasure I own is a window to a place I’ve never been and to people I’ve never met.

Joseph S. Diedrich is a Young Voices Advocate, a law student at the University of Wisconsin, and assistant editor at

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Wealth (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Wealth (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published November 16, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXVIII of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXVIII of The Rational Argumentator on November 16, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014


Many of the economic and personal fallacies of our time arise from the mistaken belief that wealth and money are identical. In fact, while money is in many cases an important gateway to wealth, it does not even approach describing what wealth truly is.

In our time, money may be equated to wealth even less justifiably than it could have been in times past – when most money was identified with precious metals, such as gold and silver, which had uses other than as media of exchange. Currently, money in virtually all countries consists of pieces of paper which are decreed to be money by government fiat. Legal tender laws force individuals to accept these special pieces of paper as payment for products, services, or debts. The supply of these pieces of paper is controlled by the government’s printing press – typically located at either the central bank or the treasury department.

Why do people seek and hold this money? They do so because they expect to be able to purchase with it actual goods and services – either now or in the future. This means that the money is not seen as valuable in itself; it is seen as valuable because of the other things it can obtain. However, the supply of these other things is not dependent on the number of pieces of paper in circulation. Rather, it is dependent on real factors that affect individuals’ and businesses’ abilities to produce actual goods and services. Thus, having more pieces of paper does not automatically make one wealthier. If the government simply chooses to print more of them, while no external factors affect the production of goods and services, then there will simply be more pieces of paper for the same amount of real goods and services. We would therefore get inflation: prices in terms of the pieces of paper will increase in proportion to the volume of new pieces of paper introduced. Of course, inflation has disastrous impacts on individuals’ existing savings, incentives for frugality, and transaction costs. It also constitutes an unjustified redistribution of wealth from the producers who earn it to the politically connected elites who get priority access to the new pieces of paper. Creating more “money” can often destroy actual wealth and productivity.

But there is another respect in which money is not equivalent to wealth. Consider the fact that, even without inflation, the same amount of money will not purchase the same goods and services in every area. Indeed, a tiny, cramped apartment in the center of a major city may often cost more money than a spacious house in a small town. An individual earning the same amount of money in each area would be able to have a much higher standard of living in the small town. It is quite possible that the individual’s opportunities to earn more money in a big city will be greater, but the prices of goods will not increase in a one-to-one ratio with that individual’s relative salary increase. Rather, the prices are most likely to be higher in a ratio that is greater or smaller than the individual’s ratio of salaries – thereby making life in the city either less or more attractive to the individual. How much money one makes is not an indicator of the rate at which one accumulates wealth; a better indicator is what one can buy for one’s money.

These thoughts should give pause to both advocates of the government’s power of the printing press and to indiscriminate salary chasers. Both may be devoting their time and energy to the pursuit of numerical illusions rather than substantive benefits. A much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of wealth is needed in order to truly thrive and lead a good life.

To achieve an understanding of wealth, we need to ask ourselves why we seek money in the first place. Ultimately, every unit of money – even one saved or invested for many years – goes to fund some human consumption. Money can pay for either goods – material objects – or services – human behaviors performed for the benefit of the payer. It is actual goods and services that constitute wealth, not the money. Moreover, the money price of these goods and services is irrelevant from the standpoint of the wealth of the person who owns them. If I have a table, I am no less wealthy if I cannot sell the table at all – nor am I any wealthier just because I have the potential to sell it for five million dollars. I still have the same table, and its physical qualities are unchanged. If I actually do sell it, I might become wealthier, but only insofar as my five million dollars would enable me to purchase more tables, better tables, or other goods and services I value. The important principle to recognize is that one either has potential wealth in the form of money or actual wealth in the form of the goods and services one has purchased. One does not have both at the same time in the same object. Fiat money is wealth only insofar as it can reasonably be expected to procure actual goods and services. Goods and services constitute wealth in themselves while they last. Capital goods that can produce other goods can also be described as potential wealth – but it is also true that they are not money while one owns them as goods.

A further distinction should be made. Not all material objects are goods, and not all human behaviors are services. Some material objects – such as clouds of poison gas in one’s living room – are active bads. Likewise, some human behaviors – such as people raping or murdering one another – are active disservices. The only way to comprehensively define wealth is with regard to a standard by which goods and services can be identified. The most fundamental standard from both a moral and a practical standpoint is the principle that the life of every innocent individual is the greatest and most basic good – where an innocent individual is one who has not violated this principle through actions such as murder or the attempt at murder. Thus, any object that promotes any individual’s life is a good; any behavior that promotes any individual’s life is a service. The more life-promoting objects one has – and the more life-promoting behaviors one either is able to elicit from others or is able to initiate oneself – the wealthier one is.

Everything else is a matter of means and context. How one gets wealth – whether it be through money, barter, gifts, or one’s own work and transformation of raw materials – has no bearing on the nature of that wealth; all of us who are not self-destructive pursue a wide variety of means that fundamentally aim at the goal of improving our lives. Ethically, the means ought to be non-coercive; we must not intrude on other people’s prerogatives to control their lives just like they must not intrude on ours. Wealth is still wealth, even if acquired through dishonest or evil means – but immoral means of wealth acquisition will destroy other wealth on net, through damage to property and human beings and their incentives to produce.

Moreover, it is possible for the same object to be beneficial in some circumstances and harmful in others. For instance, a piece of rope used to tie a knot may be extremely useful, while the same piece of rope strung across the floor of a room might be a tripping hazard. However, the same item or behavior in the exact same context should produce the same results; actual situations are never precisely repeatable, but we can at least estimate an object’s usefulness or lack thereof by analyzing situations where it has been applied in similar ways.

This view has practical implications beyond the scope of one’s views on economics or politics. Most items in our lives should be viewed not in terms of how we might be able to resell them to others, but rather in terms of what use they are to us personally. There is nothing wrong with resale as such, but it is not a behavior that can be imposed on all objects – and, indeed, economic bubbles are created when the expectation of resale for continually rising prices is applied by enough people to too many commodities. Those of us who acquire an item for our own use – which includes our purchases of art, furniture, automobiles, and yes, even houses – are not in the same position as businessmen who produce or acquire items for the specific purpose of reselling them at a profit. Businessmen see their inventories as potential money generators – an indirect route to greater wealth; consumers ought to see their property as useful in itself and any resale as incidental or fortuitous – a kind of loss mitigation once one is no longer able or willing to make good use of the property. We have adjusted quite well to the idea that the resale value of an automobile or a computer is virtually always much lower than its purchase price. In the role of consumers, we should adopt the same default expectation for houses – and for everything else. But the silly notion that one is entitled to resell any property at a higher price than one purchased it must be discarded, as it results in the foolish pursuit of higher-priced items in the vain hope of their further appreciation in price – without any expert knowledge of how markets in these items actually work. This turns many a layman into a speculator, while enticing him to take out loans with his fanciful expectations as collateral – as happened all too often during the housing bubble. Moreover, it engenders the disastrous attitude that price decreases – which make goods such as houses more affordable for people – are in some manner harmful. But one cannot destroy wealth by making goods easier to earn through honest work – nor can one create wealth by piggybacking off of others’ expectations of price increases.

Leave the house-flipping to the experts, and buy a house that you would want to live in, just as you buy clothes you want to wear and computers you want to use. That house would constitute real wealth for you, irrespective of its market price, and it will be there irrespective of financial market or currency value fluctuations – if you actually own the house or have a fixed-rate mortgage. To maximize your wealth, you should act in such a manner as to improve your access to actual goods and services that you value. Pieces of paper and expectations can only get you so far. And remember that your own ability to do useful work – including work that does not bring immediate monetary returns – is one of your most reliable gateways to wealth.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXVIII.

Review of Tyler Cowen’s “The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better” – Article by Kevin A. Carson

Review of Tyler Cowen’s “The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better” – Article by Kevin A. Carson

The New Renaissance Hat
Kevin A. Carson
July 4, 2012
Stagnation [for Carson]
Published by: Dutton Adult • Year: 2011 • Price: $12.95 • Pages: 128 •

Tyler Cowen’s thesis is that economic growth is leveling off and rates of return decreasing because we’ve already picked the “low-hanging fruit” (meaning innovations and investments that have high returns). The stagnation in GDP and median income in recent decades means “the pace of technological development has slowed down,” and the general population is benefiting less from new ideas.

I would argue, rather, that measured economic growth and income have slowed down precisely because of the increased pace of technological development.

The important trend behind the disappearance of “low-hanging fruit” is the decoupling of improved material quality of life from monetized measures of economic growth and income. Improvements in quality of life—although very real—don’t show up in conventional econometric terms.

Intensive development—increased efficiency in the use of inputs—isn’t necessarily reflected in increased money returns. Unless they’re turned into a source of rents by restrictions on competition, innovations that reduce production costs will benefit consumers in lower prices and better products.

Such rents are central to the business model of “cognitive capitalism”—the “progressive” model of capitalism pushed by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The most profitable industries in recent years have been those that depend on returns from “intellectual property.” But such artificial scarcities are fast becoming unenforceable, and technologies of abundance are growing so rapidly that they can’t be enclosed as a source of rents.

If anything, we can expect an implosion in metrics like GDP in the coming years, even as quality of life improves enormously.

Cowen almost gets it at one point. “[I]f our food supply chain harvests, retails and sells an apple for $1, that adds a dollar to measured national income.” Exactly: GDP measures value produced in terms of the total cost of inputs consumed—not the use-value we consume, but how much stuff was used up producing it. So anything that reduces the input costs of our standard of living seems to show up as negative growth.

Actually, Cowen contradicts his own thesis. He argues that official GDP figures exaggerate growth because so much of it is simply waste. But that undermines his treatment of reduced money incomes as a proxy for reduced growth in standard of living. If the additional portion of the GDP we spend on waste—and the hours we worked to pay for it—simply disappeared, we’d be better off by that much. He can’t argue both that economic growth is the best measure of technical progress and that the levels of growth that have occurred have too little to do with real productivity.

To be sure, Cowen does address the supposed diminishing returns of technological progress in terms of personal use-value. The blockbuster innovations with the biggest effect on our daily lives, he says, have already been adopted: antibiotics, automobiles, refrigerators, television, air conditioning. There’s been far less change in the character of daily life since 1960 than before. Aside from the Internet, recent innovations have been mostly incremental.

The Internet itself, Cowen argues, may be important in terms of personal happiness, but not of generating either revenue or employment. But to treat revenue generation and employment as ends in themselves—rather than a way to pay for stuff—is perverse. If the price of what we need falls because the amount of labor and capital needed to produce it falls, then we need less revenue—and less labor—for the same standard of living. The real significance of what Cowen mistakenly calls “stagnation” is that a growing share of our needs is being decoupled from revenue by technologies of abundance.

The reduced wage employment needed to produce our standard of living, as such, is a good thing. What’s bad is when artificial property rights enable rentier classes to appropriate the benefits of increased productivity for themselves. Our goal should not be to increase the number of “full-time jobs,” but to make sure that the productivity of the hours we do work is fully internalized.

Cowen focuses mainly on the Internet as part of the furniture of daily life—the fun of web surfing—to the neglect of a far more important benefit: the basic way society itself is organized, the relative power of the individual and networks versus large institutions, and the declining ability of hierarchies to enforce their will on us.

His focus on the objects of daily life ignores revolutionary changes in the way they’re made and on the structure of the economy. There’s not such a revolutionary change in going from picture tubes to gel panels, or from carburetors to fuel injectors. But there’s an enormous difference between John Kenneth Galbraith’s mass-production oligopoly economy and one of networked garage shops using cheap machine tools.

C4SS Senior Fellow Kevin Carson is a contemporary mutualist author and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. Carson has also written for such print publications as The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty and a variety of internet-based journals and blogs, including Just Things, The Art of the Possible, the P2P Foundation and his own Mutualist Blog.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.